Ethical Humanism: 25 Questions and Answers
1. What is Ethical Humanism and who are the Ethical Humanists?
Ethical Humanism is a view of the world in which reason, compassion, and commitment to ethical values and human rights are central. While we understand the capacity for some human beings to do unthinkable wrong, we believe in the potential for most people to work toward positive ends.
We encourage each other to become responsible stewards of the environment and to work to improve the quality of life for all. We celebrate diversity and are inspired by the arts. We are informed and enriched by the knowledge that comes from an understanding of the scientific method.
Ethical Humanism is not a belief system or rigid set of principles that we are born to, but a source of inspiration and information that we choose. While we respect the religious heritage of our birth as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and others, our ethical humanist approach serves as a fulfilling and lifelong educational and philosophical resource – a self-empowering guide to living a good, rewarding, informed, and useful life.
2. Do you have a creed?
Although we share core ethical values with many traditional religions, we do not espouse a specific creed or dogma. We believe that critical thinking is of greater worth than absolute faith or belief in a single creed or doctrine. Truth is not the possession of one group but can be found in many forms and expressions. We feel that many of the problems and injustices affecting contemporary society have their origins in the narrow-minded beliefs and exclusivity of fundamentalist religious thought.
3. Where (and when) do you meet?
We meet on Sunday mornings at 7574 N. Lincoln, 10:30 am, in Skokie, Illinois, conveniently located to most of the metropolitan Chicago area. Our Golden Rule Sunday School serves children from birth through 8th grade, providing an excellent ethical education program which meets at the same time as the adult program. Our high school age group, Youth in Ethical Societies (YES), meets periodically for various activities and social action projects. For current event and program information you can phone the Society at 847-677-3334 or visit our web site at: www.ethicalhuman.org.
4. Would I feel comfortable as a visitor? What is a typical meeting like?
A typical Sunday program features an outside speaker or presentation in one of the following areas: ethical philosophy, current issues, science, the humanities, or a music or dramatic performance in the fine arts. When viewed as a whole, these themes reflect our strong humanist roots, interests, values, and approach to life. We also host discussion and debate about complex issues and ethical dilemmas. Ethical Humanism is not a single-minded point of view or doctrinaire approach to the human experience, but a path to understanding.
Most Sunday Programs consist of a presentation followed by a question/answer segment. At this time, audience members are encouraged to ask pertinent questions or make brief comments. Even first-time visitors feel welcome to participate. You will also observe that, although we have a music interlude for reflection, we do not pray. An informal coffee hour follows the meeting.
5. Is this a religion or philosophy?
There are elements of both. Most members tend to prefer one description over the other. It’s up to the individual person to decide.
6. My background is (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, other), although I am no longer active in that faith. Is there a comfortable place here for me and for my family?
Definitely. Our members come from diverse backgrounds. Some retain affiliation with a temple or church; however, most consider us their complete philosophical home. We welcome all persons of good will as full-time members or as visiting friends. We focus on the ethical values people have in common, not on the things that keep us apart. People from so-called “mixed-faith” families report that they feel respected and well-served in this setting. They experience a high level of comfort and affinity with our perspective and programming. Families are enthusiastic about our gentle approach to the fun, ethical education of young children.
7. As an atheist or agnostic, would I be welcome?
We welcome skeptical persons and non-believers into our community and provide them with safe harbor. But, as previously mentioned, we also welcome those with more traditional views of religious life who find something of personal appeal and meaning in our open, non-doctrinal or non-sectarian setting. As an organization we are non-theistic. Belief, or lack of belief in a supreme being or personal deity, is up to the individual to decide for him or herself – and to pursue as an individual. We do not engage in, or foster debate on, such unknowable matters, preferring instead to focus on the here and now.
8. Where do children fit into this setting?
Our Golden Rule Sunday School encourages children to respect themselves and each other. In a relaxed and fun setting of activities and fellowship, children pursue helpful projects and learn about how to make good decisions. The children also study other religions and cultures by focusing on the values and concerns people of good will have in common. Through positive experiences they gain an appreciation for life’s wonders and diversity.
9. This sounds something like the Unitarian church. How do you differ from the Unitarian-Universalist or other liberal temple or church?
We are friendly companions in a mutual pursuit of truth and the fostering of a more humane world. Our differences are mostly of form and emphasis, rather than substance. Many Unitarian ministers have spoken at our Sunday programs, for example.
10. Do you have ministers? Conduct weddings?
Many Ethical Societies employ full-time or part-time Leaders who officiate at formal ceremonies. Our particular community has trained and certified Society Officiants who perform weddings, conduct naming ceremonies, and host memorial services.
11. What is the ethical humanist view toward Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, and the Prophets?
We feel that wisdom comes from many different models and sources, including those from traditional religion and its leaders. However, we also feel that human beings must be free to select from among the best principles and practices of any belief system. Conversely, people must feel free to ignore concepts and discard practices which they feel are no longer reasonable, valid, or desirable in some way.
Ultimately, we accept that responsibility for the future and its careful stewardship is in our hands. Without our taking on a sense of personal responsibility and accountability in the world, personally and collectively, positive change will not take place.
12. What about death? Is there life afterwards? A heaven? A hell?
We accept death as a natural process. Since no one can know what happens after life ceases, except by hope or faith, why speculate? Most Ethical Humanists feel that it is more productive to live well and responsibly in the here and now. As for heaven and hell – do they not exist at this very moment in many places upon the earth? Our common ethical commitment is to increase the quality of this life that we know for certain.
13. What is your attitude toward sin and original sin?
We do not accept negative, dogmatic religious teachings that human beings come into the world pre-stained by sin. Nor do we ponder the legalistic excesses and strange obsessions with sex of the early Puritans and Victorians. As a community, we are committed to living a good moral life of caring and respect for oneself and others, using the Golden Rule as our guiding standard.
We acknowledge that human beings have weaknesses and are capable of insensitive, mean-spirited, even immoral, actions in the extreme. Each of us fails and does hurtful things to others at times. Yet, the Ethical Humanist aspiration, in the words of its founder, Felix Adler, is to try always to act so that we bring out the best in others and thereby in ourselves.
Although we reject the concept of original sin, we do believe in a form of personal redemption. When we have wronged another human being, for example, we need to make things right by the one we offended or harmed. Emmanuel Kant, perhaps the most significant and representative philosopher of our Ethical Humanist view of life, expressed it well: to live as if every action we take would become the permanent and absolute law of the land.
14. What is the role of science in ethical development?
The scientific method forms the fundamental basis for acquiring knowledge, and we encourage its positive, responsible application. Science is our tool and our friend, never our master. It is how we explore and discover the nature of the world and move forward. We honor, support, and celebrate humanity’s achievements in medical science and other areas of research and production dedicated to positive ends. Yet we must be vigilant to ensure that projects bringing harm to people and the planet are effectively challenged.
15. What is your view of creation?
With great interest, we follow the evolving theories of astronomers, Darwinian researchers, and other scientists – that our planet continues to evolve out of stellar processes still unfolding in the universe. We accept that human life developed from primal microscopic organisms on through the primates. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that we are, each of us, made from and related to, the dust of stars and the creatures of the sea. The physical forms of nature itself – the mountains, sea, desert, forests, prairie, and sky – can be infinitely spell-binding.
Science teaches us that our knowledge of the physical laws underlying the origins of matter and governing the bodies of the universe are not finite historical fact, but an understanding that develops and is clarified as we acquire new evidence and experience. We feel that a scientific approach to the mysteries of life and the universe, coupled with our own sense of being and consciousness in the here and now, form the basis for beliefs grounded in knowledge, hope, and trust that bind nations and people together in an interrelated, interdependent community.
16. How do you teach children about these matters?
We respect a child’s need and capacity for factual explanation of things, according to level of maturity. Authentic information, given at an appropriate age, whets their curiosity and helps them to learn to reason for themselves.
Children thrive in a positive, responsible, safe setting in which truth is respected. Among many benefits, such an environment helps them replace their natural fears of the unknown with a sense of empowerment and wonder. They become challenged and inspired to discover more – to look deeper – to feel they have a role to play in the worlds they inhabit.
17. Are the arts an important part of a humanist outlook?
The arts are powerful expressions of our innermost thoughts, feelings, and longings about life. They bring insight and offer important reflection into where we have been and where we might go. They celebrate, inspire, amuse, awaken, nurture, teach, soothe, goad, and sometimes warn us with their powerful words, images, sounds, and symbols. In sum, they reach into and touch our inner core. The progressive development of humanism through the centuries was hastened and accomplished, in significant part, by means of the artists and writers of the times.
Cultural literacy is an important component of any authentic education and especially, for an understanding of humanist philosophy. The arts are an essential component of a thoughtful, joyful, responsible way of life. The painters, performers, writers, dancers, sculptors, architects, musicians, filmmakers imbue our lives with emotion and meaning. We would be impoverished without their presence.
18. Do you espouse a particular set of political beliefs or support any specific economic system?
No. Although deeply committed to the democratic process, ethical humanists have diverse opinions concerning political and economic systems. Some subscribe to responsible forms of capitalism while others lean toward or embrace a more social or community-centered ideal such as that held by many European countries.
Others hold eclectic or hybrid views. The Society has no preference or belief in any particular way, except to affirm the universal rights of all children and adults.
19. Where did humanism come from? Is it a modern philosophy?
Some form of humanism can be traced back to ancient India and the Greece of Socrates. Centuries later, the collective creative work and genius of the artists of the Renaissance foreshadowed a new view of humanity. They celebrated the emerging, individual human spirit upon which the “architects” of the Enlightenment later forged their revolutionary words/ideas of reason and equality. Before long, the roots of strong humanist expression began to emerge and nurture the monumental declaration that individual persons actually mattered and were worthy beings of respect and dignity by reason of their very existence, not family status or wealth.
No longer would most everyday people be negatively marked by birth to serve and be sacrificed as expendable pawns to the whims of the kingdom or state. Although authentic freedom for some groups, such as African slaves, was postponed until recent times, the process of liberation, once begun, was unstoppable and continues today.
20. When and how did the ethical humanist society begin?
The Ethical Culture Movement, as it is generally known in the East, had its beginnings in the late 1800’s. Felix Adler, son of the principal rabbi of Manhattan’s Temple Emmanuel, returned from formal academic, social, and philosophical studies in Europe to give an important inaugural address to a large assembled congregation in a magnificent gothic temple on Fifth Avenue. During Adler’s talk, he avoided mention of either God or the greatness of the Hebrew faith. Instead, he spoke of the need for openness, inclusion, and for all persons of good will to come join together and work for the benefit of humankind. His vision was for a religion for the modern world that would bring diverse people together in a common spirit to accomplish good things.
21. Any humanists I might be familiar with? Accomplishments of note?
Albert Einstein, Issac Asimov, Jane Addams, Carl Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, Clarence Darrow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, directly or indirectly, embraced the equivalent of a humanist philosophy.
Also, many of the founding Fathers and early nation-builders reflected a non-dogmatic, democratic and humanistic perspective.
Speaking locally, several activists and thinkers who played significant roles in the development of modern humanist thinking for the new era first appeared in significant numbers on the Chicago scene. The University of Chicago’s John Dewey and Robert Hutchins, for example, not only contributed much to that new philosophy, but masterfully applied its precepts and principles directly to education, thus transforming the teaching and learning experience and affecting social policies throughout the country.
Jane Addams, renowned social worker-innovator of Hull House fame, made frequent presentations at the Ethical Society lecture series. And the Henry Booth House, still functioning as an important urban social service center, began as an Ethical Society settlement house project. It was named after Judge Henry Booth, a prominent Chicago Justice involved in the Juvenile Court system who also headed the Chicago Ethical Society for many years.
Chicago Ethical Society members played founding roles in several social service developments which became prominent national institutions. The Chicago Urban League, the Legal Aid Society, Visiting Nurse’s Association, and the NAACP, to name a few. Internationally speaking, many Ethical Society members were present at the first International Races Conference in 1911, attended by Gandhi.
Clearly, our past is rich with meaningful ideas and accomplishments which live on today. Our challenge is to continue to build upon and be worthy of that powerful legacy.
22. Why should I consider becoming an ethical humanist?
Many people find at some point in their lives a desire for more meaning and connection. Finding an engaging community that not only stimulates your mind but also speaks to your inner philosophical and emotional needs is a great discovery.
As we grow into adulthood, many of us find we have outgrown the religious expressions of our birth which we had taken on without personal choice simply because it was there and we were expected to embrace it. But to find a religious (or philosophical) home of our own which fulfills our personal philosophical longings can be life-changing.
23. Most religions offer some concrete and comforting answers to the great questions and challenges of life. Do you?
Unlike many religions and sectarian religious institutions, Ethical Humanism is not a source for clearly defined rules to live by, tribal customs to adhere to, and/or authoritative explanations for the big questions of life: meaning, purpose, injustice, illness, death, origins, afterlife.
We feel that dogmatic responses to these difficult issues can be of limited comfort to many people. We are more focused on learning to live with the challenge of complexity and uncertainty rather than having answers handed to us or imposed by outside authority. For us, the hard question is often of greater merit than the quick answer. Although the path we choose toward understanding the great forces affecting us may, on the surface, lack the promised security and instant comfort of other choices, it can provide authentic solace and feelings of profound connection to the mysteries of life and the cosmos.
24. It all sounds so intellectual, rationalist, and serious. Any room for mystery or spirituality? Any room for fun?
Of course. We believe that happiness, like responsibility, is an essential component; a life well-lived embraces joy and celebration. We feel that our existence on earth is the only time we can be certain of; therefore, we must make the best of it by reaching for our potential, being of useful service, and celebrating this great mystery of life and journey we share in common.
25. So how do I become a member?
We encourage you to come visit us first. Attend a few of the Sunday platform meetings and get to know us. When you feel ready, speak to a representative of the Membership Committee to learn more about members’ benefits, opportunities, responsibilities, and financial support expectations. The Membership Committee will guide you through the application process and help you to feel at home at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. Welcome!